We need a new, sustainable approach to change management

This image shows some street art that says 'if not now when?' to depict the need for a new approach to change management

A new approach to change management is needed to get everyone to accept organizational changes Image: Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

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  • When it comes to change management, theories devised in the 1970s are still commonly drawn upon.
  • This old mindset reinforces the idea of 'I manage, you change,' but people tend to resist when change is forced upon them.
  • To create sustainable change, you must build buy-in from across the organization.

A lot is written about change resistance and change management, but much advice surrounding this reinforces the old mindset of change being done to someone else, ‘I manage. You change.’ Most people turn to fight-or-flight mode when change is forced upon them. Multiple studies show when faced with tumultuous change, people are more cynical, negative, distrustful and apt to disengage.

Consequently, change initiatives often lack staying power. If people won’t accept change because they’re convinced that nothing will change, they’re probably right – it’s self-reinforcing. This isn’t to say doubt isn’t merited, or that they should instantly embrace change. Often, scepticism is a rational response to a promised change, because with any change there’s no guarantee of success.

Is this perception due to the track record of the organization? Or the organizational leaders within it? Only one in three managers can name the strengths of their employees and 60% of managers claim they "don’t have time" to respect their employees. So, if managers aren’t working with and for their employees, why would any change carry weight with those affected by it?

Addressing the human side of change management

Some change management models that we use stem from the 1970s. Approaches, including McKinsey 7-S, ADKAR or Lewin’s Model, present change as a structured process, rather than an organic, ever-changing condition driven by perception and mindsets. These antiquated ideas can create temporary change, but sustainable change requires genuine emotional buy-in. The better question to ask is, is change a communication, process or culture problem?

There’s the change process from an operational perspective and there’s change from a human perspective. Here are five ways to address the human side of organizational transformation:

1. Connect change to wanted change

The change of the moment isn’t the only change. Often organizations have changes on the back burner, too unwieldy to approach. Tackling these is what establishes confidence in the change you want. Employees who have been through multiple change initiatives are skeptical and frequently take a wait-and-see approach before showing support.

If your critical change effort can be tied to other unaddressed changes, you’re on a winner. Integrating long-standing change needs to current change efforts increases credibility and reflects an organization’s ability to recognise and respond to issues on the front line.

2. Start with influencers, not just leaders

When enacting change, the default is to ensure leadership is on board. Yet, many organizations overlook those individuals who do not hold leadership positions in the change management processes but still influence company culture. They may be middle managers, key sales personnel or receptionists. These informal influencers shape organizational behaviours through influence, intelligence, networking abilities or the respect they hold within company ranks.

These are the make-or-break components to change adoption. Drawing in these influencers early on builds confidence across the organization and establishes a foundation for change rooted in reliable voices. Organizational influencers may not hold traditional power, but they hold informal power, driving the social construct of the organization.

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3. Provide everyone with an opportunity to own a stake

When individuals have an opportunity to shape a change, they are significantly more likely to embrace it. When employees, for example, are asked not just their opinion, but to engage by contributing to a specific aspect or outcome, you tap into their motivations and sense of fulfillment.

While it’s recommended to ask for employees’ input or to hold a town hall to capture different perspectives, these approaches rarely translate into actions that become part of the established change plan. More often, they're used for executive cover, where pre-made decisions are couched with employee commentary from feedback exercises that validate what’s already established. Instead, present the proposed change in a series of small group discussions, where employees can provide constructive criticism, ideas on how to change and avenues for their involvement. This allows them to connect with change on a personal level, fostering the ability to stand out from their peers and creating a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

4. Establish a neutral cultural facilitator for effective change management

When the role of change is led by the CEO or C-Suite, individual concerns and questions get funneled to direct supervisors. As conflicts between departments arise, you get a power struggle. Teams with more political influence jockey to have their perspective blessed over another, whether it’s beneficial to the larger change or not.

Bringing in a third party can neutralise internal office politics, posturing and infighting. Serving as part moderator, part engagement manager and part counsellor, they can channel their inner Gordon Ramsey or Tony Robbins to address issues head-on and motivate through individual attention. This ensures balanced decisions when dissent arises and helps eliminate internal bias.

5. Embody the behaviours that support change

Often, change is given a dog-and-pony show. Logos, posters, stickers, t-shirts – fodder for building buy-in and excitement for organizational change. But, like a dog whistle, employees know what it signals and will wait until the excitement passes and things return to the status quo.

Instead of glossing change over with superficial gifts, represent through action what the change embodies. Move the change focus towards giving more back to the community or translate it into direct behaviours, from paid volunteer hours to employee-matched donations. By providing behavioural illustrations representing the change, leadership transforms change from something stated to something acted upon. This also sets the stage for employees’ behaviours as they move along the change journey.


Create a series of micro-change strategies

Instead, break change efforts into a series of micro-changes. With the core message intact, communicate a series of stages in which the change will occur. This can include milestones, phases, or any segmentation approach that illustrates progress towards the larger goal, establishing a sense of accomplishment and progress. These micro-changes also build internal momentum, making progress attainable in the short term while keeping focus on the long term.

Change is never easy, but how we approach it makes a significant difference to whether it’s embraced or rejected. Even though each organization and context are different, human behaviour dictates that building buy-in requires emotional connection, commitment, time and positive reinforcement.

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